Migration and the Spirits of Life

Celebrated annually on November 2, Dia de los Muertos, or "Day of the Dead," embraces life as it pokes fun at the Grim Reaper. (Note: In some regions, the celebration spans two days, from November 1st through the 2nd, in which case it is called Dias de los Muertos.)
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In specific parts of Mexico, the Dia de los Muertos holiday season is signaled by the autumn arrival of the mariposa -- monarch butterflies -- which are believed to usher in the spirits of the departed. In her book Culture Smart!, Susan Rodrigues writes:

Believed since ancient days to give flight to the spirit, the Monarch fly by the millions to Mexico from near and far. These winged creatures of transformation, long associated with departed warriors, come at a time when Mexicans express their heartfelt fears, joys, sorrows and hopes [through Day of the Dead]. The mariposa magically remind all that life and death are cyclical, one forms the other. Just as butterflies are sure to return each year, families, friends and loved ones will meet again in Mexico.

This November, introduce students to the Day of the Dead through a biology lesson that focuses on the Monarch butterfly.



  • Metamorphosis (complete)
  • Migration
  • Predation
  • Overwintering sites



1. Introduce students to the monarch butterfly through books, magazines or photographs. Be sure to include a description of the role that the mariposa play in the Day of the Dead.

2. Introduce the term migration to students. As a homework assignment, assign relevant reading from textbooks, or look to www.monarchwatch.org for monarch-specific migration information. Prompt class discussion the following day by asking questions like:

  • We know that the monarchs arrive in Mexico (and California) during the fall, but why?
  • How do they get there?
  • What characteristics do the overwintering sites possess that attract the butterflies?

3. Using the monarch butterfly as an example, discuss the stages of complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa and adult.) Are the monarchs that arrive in Mexico in the fall the same ones that return to the United States and Canada in the spring? How does the monarch life cycle relate to the symbolism of the Day of the Dead?

4. Several factors influence whether a species will flourish or diminish. One of these factors is predation. Ask students to identify some of the features that an organism might possess or tactics that it might use to reduce its chances of being captured and eaten by another living creature. Responses might include camouflage (looks like tree bark), behavioral characteristics (fleeing the danger area), chemical defenses (tastes or smells bad), or mechanical barriers (like a porcupine's bristles). What defenses do monarch butterflies have or use?

5. Although nature has protected monarchs from predation, human beings pose a different threat to the species' survival. As a homework assignment, ask students to research how human encroachment is destroying or damaging severely the habitats of the monarch butterfly. Divide students into groups, and ask each group to research a specific environment: overwintering sites in California, overwintering sites in Mexico and the butterfly's spring and summer residences in Canada and the northern United States, for example. Another student group might research how the depletion of the ozone layer is impacting the monarch larvae's main source of nourishment -- milkweed. Discuss student findings in class.

6. The monarch butterfly obviously plays a crucial role in the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. What might the holiday be like without the butterflies? What would be missing? What are some other important reasons for helping the butterfly? Ask students to identify ways in which governments, communities and individuals can protect the monarch. Encourage students to take action on their recommendations.

7. As an accompanying art activity, ask students to cut out paper monarchs. On the back of their faux butterflies, students can write their answers to the questions posed above (see #6.) Alternatively, as a means on joining in the Dia de los Muertos celebration, students might write a personal message to a loved one who has passed on.

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